Does the population size of the US get in the way?

One idea I’ve had in my mind in recent years is how the population size of the United States interacts with the country’s stated ideals and policies. Is it possible to be the United States with over 320 million residents? When I hear discussions of policy, I am regularly struck by the size of the issue at hand. Healthcare is a good example. Any changes at the Federal level – whether adding to existing policies or retracting what currently exists – would have significant impact on millions of people as well as have a sizable effect on the budget. Additionally, we have multiple layers of government (federal – three branches, state, county, township – not everywhere, municipality, some regulatory and taxing bodies that span these layers) that can sometimes add to the complexity. Furthermore, we are a relatively open society that incorporates many people and comes out with something “American.” We may not be one of the happiest countries in the world but a number of the countries at the top of the list are simply not as socially complex. Indeed, of the 13 countries ahead of the United States, only one is 1/10 the population size (Canada) and the rest don’t come close to that.

On the other hand, we have had an explosion of the Internet and social media that allows us to drill down to individual experience after individual experience. One way to think about social media is that it allows the experiences or opinions of individual actors to reach a wide audience. However, these individual experiences can blur the wider patterns at play. How can we compare anecdotes?

Perhaps the practical question in this: how do we operate between these two scales of a large-scale complex society versus the individual actor? It is not easy to do as either scale has drawbacks and benefits. At the least, it highlights that the “American Experiment” continues, perhaps now less based on our democratic and republican aspirations but more in terms of size and complexity.

Claim: US undergoing secularization, just at a slower pace

Two sociologists argue that the United States is not that unusual regarding secularization trends in the industrialized world:

Most research that compares American religion with religion elsewhere emphasizes the high levels of participation in the United States, and treats those high levels as strong evidence that America is exceptional.

If we look at the trends, though, it appears that the US isn’t a counter-example to the idea that modernization causes problems for religion. On the contrary, religious change in the United States is very similar to what we see elsewhere: long-term decline produced mainly by generational replacement.

This process operates slowly, and it can be counteracted in the short term by short-lived revivals, but it is very difficult to reverse…

Figure 2 – Attendance monthly or more often by decade of birth, United States, 1973-2014

Voas Fig 2

Chaves has been making this argument for a few years now.

Two quick thoughts:

  1. As they note at the end, the interesting question then to ask is why the United States has been slower to follow the secularization trend than other nations. This is not a small question and at least several suggestions have already been made by researchers including World Wars in Europe and the rise of the welfare state.
  2. Researchers are in a unique position if they argue any trend is inevitable. Voas and Chaves may be shown correct if religiosity continues to decline in new generations but it could be decades before the conclusive evidence arises. Additionally, societal patterns can change – even if such changes seem improbable at one time. If a researcher is correct in calling out a trend, they can appear prophetic but if they are wrong, their status may be diminished.

American property taxes have feudal roots

American property taxes have a long history in English law:

The origins of the property tax aren’t American at all. It, instead, has roots that date back to Europe’s feudal system. First instituted in England by William the Conqueror in 1066, the early tax system worked this way: A king (or conqueror) took over all the land in a given territory. He would then divide it among his lieutenants and supporters, who would pay him (with money or services) in order to keep that land. In return, landholders enjoyed the king’s protection and were able to rent the property out to others—who would live and work the land—for a fee. The punishment for nonpayment was forfeiture of the land, which could result in a considerable loss of money and status. At the time, this system was called “free and common socage,” according to John Joseph Wallis, an economic historian at the University of Maryland. The person who held the land was called a socman, his taxes, socage. The arrangement created a way for people to own land while still having to remain loyal to the crown, which also had rights to the land.

After expansion across the Atlantic started, King James made sure that this system traveled overseas with the first settlers at Jamestown, so that he could partake in the profits of exploration of the new land. The charter of the Virginia Company held that—as in feudal times—the king would protect the lands in Jamestown, and in return, the people living on the land would pay him a share of their profits there. All land of the colony would be held in “free and common socage,” according to the Virginia Company charter. This meant that land could be bought and sold in the colonies, as long as the new holder of land continue to pay the king.

And why did the system persist even after the American Revolution?

It’s a peculiar note of history that the founding fathers, who spoke often of abolishing the feudal system, kept this remnant of the Old World. But the rationale is very simple: They needed the money. In fact, the federal government levied a national property tax in 1798, 1814, 1815, 1816, and 1861. The tax in 1798, for example, charged households for their slaves (50 cents), houses, and land. It raised $2 million, according to Wallis. These taxes usually outraged residents, who would often revolt, but the system of collecting property tax remained. That’s because property taxes were locally spent and collected in the beginning, and often paid for things like roads and canals that property owners would be able to see, and that increased the value of their property.

If indeed property taxes are the most hated tax for Americans, I wonder if residents would prefer the alternatives. One advantage of the property tax is that the monies are often spent closer to home, usually on local school districts and municipal services. Eliminate the property tax and taxes may be collected by governmental groups further way that have fewer responsibilities to local residents. Americans may not like property taxes but they do like local control.


Gallup: most Americans are proud to be American

In time for July 4th, Gallup has numbers on how many and which Americans feel “extremely proud” of the United States:

Proud to Be an American

In addition to the 54% who are extremely proud to be an American, 27% say they are “very proud,” 14% say they are “moderately proud,” 4% are “only a little proud” and 1% state that they are “not at all proud.”…

While most Americans are proud to be an American, certain groups are especially likely to say they are extremely proud. “Extreme pride” rises for each succeeding age group, from a low of 43% among those under 30 to a high of 64% among senior citizens.

Extreme pride also varies regionally, from a high of 61% in the South to a low of 46% in the West…

How proud are you to be an American --

None of these findings should be too surprising. Yet, one takeaway I have that I haven’t seen noted in the articles about these data is that almost all Americans have some pride in their country. Only 1% were “not at all proud” and then another 4% were “only a little proud.” This may be a product of the categories as well as a patriotic culture. Can you really distinguish between “very proud” and “moderately proud”? If you are “very proud,” what holds people back from being “extremely proud”? Perhaps the best way to get a handle on this would be to compare it to international data.

Sociologist: China to have the most Christians in the world by 2030

In another indicator of the shift of Christianity from the West, one sociologist predicts China will be home to the largest number of Christians by 2030:

“By my calculations China is destined to become the largest Christian country in the world very soon,” said Fenggang Yang, a professor of sociology at Purdue University and author of Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule…China’s Protestant community, which had just one million members in 1949, has already overtaken those of countries more commonly associated with an evangelical boom. In 2010 there were more than 58 million Protestants in China compared to 40 million in Brazil and 36 million in South Africa, according to the Pew Research Centre’s Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Prof Yang, a leading expert on religion in China, believes that number will swell to around 160 million by 2025. That would likely put China ahead even of the United States, which had around 159 million Protestants in 2010 but whose congregations are in decline.

By 2030, China’s total Christian population, including Catholics, would exceed 247 million, placing it above Mexico, Brazil and the United States as the largest Christian congregation in the world, he predicted.

This could lead to a lot of change in China – and change in the United States where many Christians see China as a less-than-Christian country as well as consider their own country to be a (the?) leading Christian nation. Of course, there is some time before this prediction can be assessed and a lot could happen between now and then…

Economic output of American metro areas rival that of foreign countries

One interesting indicator of the economic power of American metropolitan areas is how they match up with the output of foreign countries:

The greater New York metro, far and away America’s largest and richest, is projected to produce $1.4 trillion dollars in GMP in 2014. This makes it about the same size as Australia, equivalent the world’s 12th largest economy.

L.A., projected to account for almost $830 billion in GMP, has a larger economy than that of the Netherlands, and would therefore number among the world’s top 20 economies.

Chicago, with more than $610 billion in GMP, is about the same size as Switzerland and significantly bigger than Sweden…

And even far smaller metros can outpace some substantial national economies. With $180 billion in GMP, Denver’s economy is comparable to that of the entire country of New Zealand. Even Anchorage, Alaska, projected to produce nearly $30 billion in GMP, is about the same size as Latvia.

It strikes me that this is also a pretty fascinating look at America’s economic power overall. If each of these metropolitan areas could be their own city-states, having them all in one country is quite a feat. Of course, if they were split up, this could change their economic output. In fact, it would be interesting to play a what if game with that very question: which would US metros would thrive as independent states and which would falter?

United States now #1 oil-producing country in the world

The United States is again #1 in oil production, passing Saudi Arabia:

The United States has overtaken Saudi Arabia to become the world’s biggest oil producer as the jump in output from shale plays has led to the second biggest oil boom in history, according to leading U.S. energy consultancy PIRA.

U.S. output, which includes natural gas liquids and biofuels, has swelled 3.2 million barrels per day (bpd) since 2009, the fastest expansion in production over a four-year period since a surge in Saudi Arabia’s output from 1970-1974, PIRA said in a release on Tuesday…

Last month, China surpassed the United States as the largest importer of crude, according to the U.S. government, as the rise of domestic output cuts the U.S. dependence on overseas oil.

“(The U.S.) growth rate is greater than the sum of the growth of the next nine fastest growing countries combined and has covered most of the world’s net demand growth over the past two years,” PIRA Energy Group wrote.

Three quick thoughts:

1. People don’t often think of United States as having lots of oil though the natural resources within the US have been important throughout its history. With this new information, does this change how US residents and others around the world view the US? Does it then change how the US views the Middle East and other nations with lots of oil?

2. The article notes that this was the fastest production increase in over four years. The average person may not be terribly aware of this but those opposed to fracking should be able to use this info: this is quite a rapid change.

3. When will peak oil really arrive? One article recently suggested this oil boom is not the last; there is more untapped oil in the oceans. As the article suggests, this supply may make it even more difficult to talk about the impact of oil on the environment.